On Wednesday, June 3, 200 people converged on the intersection of Highway 12 and Main Street in downtown Sebastopol to protest the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police.
The protest was organized by Jonah and Lily Balakhaneh and was designed to be a peaceful, masked, safely distanced affair. Social distancing proved difficult in a crowd of that size, but almost everyone was masked.
The Balakhanehs were surprise and gratified by how many people showed up. Before the event, Jonah estimated that about 15 people would show up; Lily thought they might get 50 if they were lucky. They were both stunned by the turnout.
“The whole thing makes me want to cry honestly because of the way so many people in the community turned out for this,” Lily said.
The Sebastopol Police lend a helping hand
At the beginning of the protest Lily approached Sebastopol’s Acting Police Chief Greg DeVore.
“I asked him, ‘Are you here to monitor us?’ and he said, ‘I’m actually here to protest with you,’” she said. “I asked if he’d be willing to take a knee with me on the sidewalk and he was, like, ‘I'm not sure if I can because I’m old, but I’ll give it a try.’ So he got down on the knee with us.”
At one point, at the urging of students from the Analy Activist Club, the Balakhanehs asked the Sebastopol Police Department for permission to block the intersection for a period of nine minutes, one minute for every minute that that a Minneapolis policeman knelt on Floyd’s neck as he died.
The intersection is one of the most heavily traveled in west Sonoma County, but DeVore and Sergeant David Ginn used a patrol vehicle to block the intersection and patrolled the intersection on foot, in order to make it safe for the protesters to gather in the center of it for the event. Lily said Devore also knelt with the protestors during this time.
After nine minutes, the protesters moved back to the sidewalks and the roadway was re-opened.
A protest made for Sebastopol
The Balakhanehs had actually gone to the protests in Santa Rosa the first few nights, but they were eager to stage a different, more peaceful kind of event in Sebastopol.
Lily said, she felt it was important to take a stand on this issue.
“I think the biggest thing is this is not a call-out, but a call-in to everybody who has been on the sidelines and has been not sure what to say,” she said. “This is a moment where there's an energetic opening and we can start having conversations about this — at home and with your kids and your grandkids and in your workplace. Like what are your anti-discrimination policies at work? Where are you on this issue?”
“Somebody said this — and I thought it was the perfect quote — ‘Don't let this just be a moment, let this be a movement,’” Lily said.
“To do something one time is one thing, but to really make meaningful change and to dismantle the kind of the systematic normalcy that produces police violence — that's where the real change happens,” she continued. “And that starts with everybody just being a little bit more conscious and being willing to examine our own contributions to this system.”
Lily's friend, Mickale Jones, was also at the protest.
"The protest in Sebastopol was an amazing example of what can happen when a community truly comes together," he said. "For a small town, I believe that we took a big stance against hate and social injustice!"
"This is a crucial time in our nation's history," Jones said. "We've cried together, hurt together, and been angered by the actions of those who have filled their hearts with hate. The time is long overdue to take a stand. For each other. For our children. And for those who can no longer speak for themselves. Be the change you want to see in this world."
Whether or not this turns into a movement, the Balakhanehs say they are profoundly grateful for the way the community came together with an intention of peacefulness for the Sebastopol protest.
“It was really beautiful that it evolved into what it did,” Lily said.